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Two Defenders of Civil Liberties Take Different Paths

Onetime state ACLU director embraces gun control, former senator stays mum

North Carolina Democrat Deborah Ross, who is running for the Senate, broke with the ACLU on preventing people on the n0-fly list from obtaining guns. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
North Carolina Democrat Deborah Ross, who is running for the Senate, broke with the ACLU on preventing people on the n0-fly list from obtaining guns. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Deborah Ross, a former American Civil Liberties Union director in North Carolina, have advocated for civil liberties throughout their careers.  

But as they campaign for Senate, their responses to a push by House Democrats for more gun control are far apart.  

Roll Call’s 2016 Election Guide: Senate

Ross has largely embraced those efforts. Feingold has been mostly silent.  

For Ross, preventing people on the federal “no fly” list from purchasing guns has been a key campaign issue. She’s criticized her opponent, Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, for his votes on gun measures.  

“It’s Richard Burr who has voted twice in the past six months to continue allowing known and suspected terrorists to buy guns, which goes against public safety and, quite frankly, commonsense,” Ross said in a statement to Roll Call.  

Ironically, the position puts her at odds with her former employer, the ACLU.  

The ACLU has criticized the “no-fly” list, claiming that the government can place Americans on it even though they’ve never been charged with or convicted of a crime, and without demonstrating that they may actually pose a threat.   

“I disagree with the ACLU on this one,” Ross said. “The safety of our people is my top priority, and that’s why I want law enforcement to have the tools they need to keep guns away from suspected terrorists.”

A civil liberties stalwart 

Similarly, Feingold has long been seen as a stalwart for civil liberties.  

He was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.  

And during the Bush administration, Feingold was critical of the “no-fly” list.  

In 2008, Feingold sent a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of the FBI. He wanted to know why federal air marshals were unable to board planes because their names matched some on the no-fly list.  

Feingold’s social media accounts have been quiet about the congressional sit-in last month.  His Facebook statement on the Orlando mass shooting ,  which prompted the latest push for gun control by Democrats, did not mention guns.  

Feingold’s campaign did not return request for comment.  

He did recently  tell  a Wisconsin political news site that he supported keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists but wanted to ensure “it’s not restricting the fundamental rights of American citizens without due process.”  

In that, he is more aligned with the ACLU’s position.   

The former Wisconsin Senator — who is running against Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, who beat him in 2010 —also has called for waiting periods, expanded background checks and banning high-capacity magazines.  

In 2010, he had a C-rating from the National Rifle Association, though the NRA gave him an “F” in 1998 and a “D” in 2004.  

He voted in favor of the 1993 Brady Bill that created a waiting period and background checks on gun purchases. He also voted in favor of an assault weapons ban  that same year and in 1999, voted in favor of regulating the sale of guns at gun shows.  

But Feingold also wrote about how the right to bear arms is an individual right in his college senior thesis. And, as a senator, he  voted in favor of allowing Amtrak passengers to transport firearms in checked baggage. Feingold also backed legislation that would have allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines if they have a permit in their home state.  

Contact Garcia at and follow him on Twitter @EricMGarcia.

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